It’s fair to say Buffalo Sabres general manager Jason Botterill’s moves have far from paid off up to now. Free agency during the 2020 offseason is the perfect opportunity for him to turn it around.
A curious Sabres trade deadline, during which Botterill seemed to both build for the future by acquiring Dominik Kahun and go for it all at once by acquiring Wayne Simmonds, actually acts as a decent metaphor for the team as a whole. The Sabres are effectively suffering through an identity crisis, needing so badly to turn it around, having not made the playoffs since 2011, but with no apparent idea how.
In a way, you could make a case that, even though Kahun is a pending restricted free agent, he was also the best player in Botterill’s deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins (Conor Sheary, Evan Rodrigues). So, getting both Kahun and Simmonds, who’s going to be an unrestricted free agent? Maybe a sign that Botterill was making a playoff push after the Sabres had won six of eight heading into the deadline.
They then proceeded to lose six straight, because of course they did. These are the Sabres, who just barely missed out on the last play-in-round playoff spot, which was awarded to the just-as-mediocre Montreal Canadiens, we’re talking about here.
It’s probably for the best, seeing as the Sabres now automatically become a lottery team. However, maybe Botterill was right and they can have their cake and eat it too. His strategy could just use some tweaking. If he goes about it the right way, he could position the Sabres for a playoff return as soon as next season, assuming they pursue the following free-agent targets:
3. Thomas Greiss
The jury is still out on whether 27-year-old Linus Ullmark is the Sabres’ goalie of the future. However, Carter Hutton can’t realistically be their goalie of right now.
While Hutton’s come clean about vision issues that affected his performance this past season, they tell only part of the story. He was winless between Oct. 24 and Jan. 30, despite the admission that the vision problems only really came on at the start of the calendar year.
Ultimately, even if you generously remove this season from his resume, Hutton still can’t be considered the answer. He’ll be 35 years old this coming season, at the tail end of a career in which he did his best work as a backup. With one year left on his deal, he may even be a buyout candidate after he went 12-14-4 with a 3.18 goals-against average and .898 save percentage. If not, he could conceivably end up being buried in the minors as his $2.75 million cap hit is far from crippling.
In any case, Ullmark may not still be ready to be given the net as a full-fledged No. 1. So, Botterill must do something. RFA Jonas Johansson could be a long-term solution, but his limited time in the NHL after having been called up this past season showed he wasn’t ready. A stop-gap measure, like Thomas Greiss, could be the band-aid the doctor ordered.
Greiss has thrived as a 1B goalie with the New York Islanders over the last five seasons. Like Ullmark, he may not be ready for the responsibilities of being a No. 1 through and through, but as an option to platoon in and out for a season or two, why not if the price is right? Seeing as he is 34 years old, his contract demands should at least be reasonable.
Obviously, Greiss is not the marquee name available in net. That would probably be Robin Lehner, but he likely wouldn’t come back to Buffalo. He’s followed by Jacob Markstrom, who looks like a bad contract waiting to happen, in spite of his admittedly great season this past year. If the Sabres do find themselves looking to replace Hutton via free agency, Greiss would really be the only option.
2. Dustin Byfuglien
Greiss is mainly an option for the Sabres because of his affordability, as one of the issues with the Sabres is they’re not in the best salary-cap situation. Another is they need someone to play with Rasmus Dahlin. Enter Dustin Byfuglien… theoretically at least.
Sure, Colin Miller performed adequately as Dahlin’s partner over a relatively small sample size. Ideally speaking though, you would think the Sabres would prefer to move him down the depth chart on the right side, especially if trade rumors surrounding fellow-right-handed defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen materialize.
If so, Ristolainen’s $5.4 million coming off the books could help kill two birds with one stone. They could use the space to present Byfuglien with a decent offer.
Obviously, Byfuglien comes with his share of baggage. Things between Byfuglien and the Winnipeg Jets didn’t end very well. Assuming he’s healthy, he nevertheless represents a top-end option on the right side. Granted, he’s 35, but he could also be resigned to inking a relatively cheap, short-term deal to prove that he still is the powerhouse, offensively capable defenseman he was when last we saw him in action. Maybe the next time, it could be in a Sabres jersey.
1. Tyler Toffoli
The Sabres face the highest degree of turnover on the wings. In addition to Simmonds, Michael Frolik, Jimmy Vesey and Zemgus Girgensons are all slated to hit unrestricted free agency (alongside center Johan Larsson).
On the plus side, that should open up cap space. On the negative side, they need to fill it with someone and, while Taylor Hall is the best winger available (or best player available, bar none), that’s a pipedream that will likely never happen. The Sabres need to think smaller in order to have a realistic shot at luring scoring talent to such a small market without a winning tradition in the recent past. That means taking a chance on a player who’s not nearly as proven.
Thinking practically, Tyler Toffoli could be the guy. He’s still only 28 and, while he hasn’t put up big points in the recent past for the Los Angeles Kings, he does have a 31-goal season under his belt (2015-16). Furthermore, after being traded to the Vancouver Canucks he did score 10 points in 10 games, hinting at his potential to produce in the right situation. For a talented young winger, there are few better places than beside Jack Eichel.
That’s how the Sabres need to sell it. And, even though Eichel has expressed disappointment over how things have gone in Buffalo, turning the Sabres into a winner is the best way to keep their superstar center happy. Dipping into free agency is one way to do it as fast as possible, assuming Botterill does it wisely.